Poultry processing, a thankless job


Americans love chicken, and the day we love it most is today, Super Bowl Sunday, when we will consume 1.3 billion chicken wings. But how does a live chicken turn into a bag of frozen Buffalo wings? Who's doing the hard work of hanging, trimming and freezing the chicken?

In 2014, over a quarter billion chickens came from the Eastern Shore of Maryland; the state ranks ninth in the country in raising chickens for their meat, and the industry creates almost $1 billion in revenue here. Maryland is also home to the third largest chicken company in the United States: Perdue is an industry giant, having been founded and guided by three generations of the Perdue family, and now employing thousands of workers in plants across the country.

So Maryland is responsible for millions of wings — but we still don't know much about how they get to us. And the companies don't really invite us to find out. However, a recent survey of over 60 poultry workers at several plants in the Delmarva region, conducted by Maryland Legal Aid, Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights and others, gives us a glimpse at the reality of life inside the plant.

The survey shows that transformation from bird to wings isn't easy, isn't pretty, and it sure isn't safe. Workers endure cold, wet, slippery and dangerous conditions; they incur a lot of damage to their bodies; they struggle to keep pace with the line; and they earn low wages.

Workers report that despite their long, hard hours, they struggle for respect, even for such fundamental rights as bathroom breaks. One woman who works at a Perdue plant says, "One time they didn't let me go to the bathroom and so I had to relieve myself on the line. A lot of people just leave the line to go to bathroom; and then they lose their job because [the supervisors] say they've abandoned their work." Nearly three quarters (72 percent) of those surveyed knew of workers wearing diapers or relieving themselves on the line.

And poultry processing takes a toll on the body. Rates of occupational illness among poultry workers are five times higher than among all workers in the U.S. Dangers include amputations, cuts and lacerations, slips, trips, falls, respiratory hazards and exposure to dangerous chemicals. One worker at a Tyson plant in Maryland noted, "There are a lot of injuries. In the last week, a lady cut her hand and three others slipped and fell." He says that he has pain and numbness in his hands, and that sometimes his fingers turn black from handling the frozen chicken and cramp up in pain. Three quarters of workers say they've had injuries or pain while working, while 62 percent said they are reluctant or scared to report injuries.

Most commonly, workers suffer musculoskeletal disorders, or MSDs, from the repetitive motions. Poultry workers suffer carpal tunnel syndrome seven times more often than workers in other industries.

These results confirm the recent research by Oxfam America, which reports that the poultry industry is not doing enough to protect workers' health and safety. Instead, the industry tries to paint a portrait of declining incidents of injuries and illnesses, while at the same time urging the federal government to increase maximum line speeds and push the workers even harder.

This is a booming industry that should do better by its workforce. Chicken is the most popular meat in America, and consumption grows every year. Profits are climbing, consumer demand is growing, and executive compensation is increasing rapidly.

Think about the work that goes into those wings consumed on Super Bowl Sunday; and yet you can buy a bag of frozen Perdue Buffalo Style wings, weighing over a pound and a half, for under $6. There's a factor missing in this equation. And that factor is the labor: if workers give their time, sweat, and health for this industry, then the companies can do more to safeguard their health and reward their labors.

 Minor Sinclair (msinclair@oxfamamerica.org) is director of the U.S. regional office of Oxfam America. C. Shawn Boehringer (Sboehringer@mdlab.org)is Chief Counsel of Maryland Legal Aid.